Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Madison Mahre, 14, works on hockey drills during a 6 a.m. private training session with Patrick Houlihan at the IceFourm in Duluth in February. Mahre wears her jersey from the U16 AAA Team Pittsburgh.
Madison Mahre chases her ice hockey dreams
Fourteen year old girl Madison Mahre is the only girl on the Atlanta Fire 99 Bantam AAA ice hockey team. Mahre an 8th grader at Greater Atlanta Christian School will be attending St. Pauls a prep school in Concord, N.H. next school year to pursue her hockey and career dreams.
The long sweep of a black ponytail obscuring her jersey number makes Madison Mahre easy to find on the ice.
So does her height. She's a head taller than most of her teammates.
More importantly, she stands out with her strong, smooth strides and exceptionally mature decision-making.
Madison Mahre is a lot more than a ponytail.
She's a lot more than a girl who played on a boys team.
She's broken glass learning to take a slap shot last year. And apologized for slowing down practice.
She's a 13-year-old good enough to be on a U16 girls travel team out of Pittsburgh.
She's one of just two eighth-graders invited to a prestigious Canadian hockey camp this week, which expects to have 17 NCAA coaches in attendance.
She's headed to prep school on a Merritt Scholarship in the fall, having picked St. Paul's in Concord, N.H., from the five that made her offers this year.
She may also be the first Southerner to make it to the pinnacle of women's ice hockey.
"I really, honestly believe this girl is going to play in the Olympics," said Ray Hemms, her skating coach since she started playing hockey less than five years ago.
A figure skater without the figure
"I did like figure skating," said Mahre, who attends school at Greater Atlanta Christian in Norcross and turned 14 in January. "I always loved to skate. But I don't really have the body build for it. I'm stockier.
"I was about as graceful as a rock."
Her first competition was enough for Mahre to realize it wasn't the sport for her. The skating was, though. She began to bug her parents about signing her up to play.
They started with private lessons from Hemms.
"When I first got her we were just working on forward stride, full stride, tight turns and crossovers," Hemms said. "Proper skating techniques."
The pre-dawn practices each week helped prepare Mahre for her first season playing defense on a boys house league team -- in so far as she knew how to put on her equipment and had the basics of skating down.
"I was so nervous," Mahre said. "I was not good. I was probably one of the worst people out there. I was so slow. I was bad with my stick-handling. I was bad with my skating.
"The majority of my team was nice to me though. They helped me, pushed me. I became a better player that way."
What really made Mahre a better player was her own drive.
"I was aware I was not good," she said. "I would always get really upset after the games. I would tell my dad I was the worst person out there. My dad said, 'If you want to be better, I'll get you some private lessons. You can run at home, start lifting weights.'
"I would wake up at 5 a.m. every Sunday morning and a lot of Saturdays so I could do private lessons (at The Cooler). That was the only ice time I could get."
By her second season playing house league with the boys at The Cooler, Mahre wasn't bad. The next year, she started to feel pretty good about her progress.
"I tried out for the travel team and I guess I just wasn't quite that good to be the girl on the guys team," Mahre said.
She did find a place on the travel team out of the IceForum in Duluth though.
"When I did start out with the travel team, I went to camps with them and they were all so much better than me," Mahre said. "I was in awe of how good some of the boys were. I was the youngest player in the group and a girl just starting out. The guys just didn't really talk to me. But the more they saw me work hard, the more I tried, the more they respected me."
Work ethic has never been an issue for her.
Mahre was back at the bottom of the food chain on her travel team. She was dripping with sweat after 15 minutes of off-ice training.
"I was always trying to push," Mahre said. "At the beginning of the season, we would do running and I was always at the back of the pack. By the end of the season, I was pretty close to the front. I made so much improvement off ice because I got in such better shape."
She also hit her growth spurt, well ahead of her male teammates, and is now 5-foot-10.
"I was lifting weights at home," Mahre said. "Along with my skating lessons, I would do camps with boys so much better than me. They pushed me because I wanted to be as good as them.
"My Junior Thrasher year (at the IceForum), I started out last line and ended up first line, power play and penalty kill."
The next season, Mahre started out on the top defensive pairing, but she wasn't satisfied.
"I wanted to be so good that people would notice me and boys would be like, look at that girl -- she's better than you," Mahre said. "I ended up going to nationals (last March). I went there and I was so nervous. What if these guys are really good? We're in the South so what if I'm just bad?"
She shouldn't have worried. Mahre finally realized she was pretty good. So did the coaches who sought her out after games.
"It really helped my confidence level," Mahre said.
A year ago, Mahre tried out for the Thunder AAA U14 team in Duluth. It's the highest level of youth hockey.
She didn't make the team.
But she still wanted to play AAA and The Cooler was starting a team at that level.
Hemms remembers his surprise and excitement when she made the team.
"In order for her to get a spot, a boy didn't get a spot," he said. "She earned her spot, there's no doubt about it."
She was the team's best, most dependable defenseman.
"She's rock solid on 'D,'" said Lou Verrone, one of her AAA coaches this season. "The fact that she's female has nothing to do with it."
Mahre isn't flashy. She's a stay-at-home defenseman that rarely makes mistakes.
"She's very intelligent, she's mature, she makes very good decisions," Verrone said. "I think she blocks more shots than anyone on our team. And never complains."
Mahre is deft at defusing offensive rushes with a well-timed poke check. She crunches forwards against the boards. She's calm and controlled and plays in all the high-pressure situations.
"When she laces up, she's as good or better than most of the people around her," said Don McMahon, another of her Fire coaches. "Her teammates look at her as hockey player. They don't see her as Maddie, the girl.
"As a matter of fact, I'd be willing to bet you, if the game were on the line, most of them would tell you, we want Maddie on the ice. I think the coaches feel the same way."
But she's also reached the point where she risks serious injury by continuing to play against boys. Because those boys are on the cusp of becoming men.
During a game this season at The Cooler, Mahre's team of 1999-birth year players went against a team of '98s. It was obvious what a difference a year made for the boys at that level. Mahre was taller than most of her teammates. She was about the same size as the other team.
"There's just a certain point where I can't play with them," Mahre said. "Lately, my parents have been really concerned about me getting concussions and things like that because sometimes, just because I have a ponytail, I tend to have a target on my back."
Playing with the girls
Mahre was part of the U16 AAA Team Pittsburgh, the only 13-year-old to make the team. She played in five tournaments with the team and started thinking about where to go from here.
Many of her teammates go to prep schools.
"I hadn't thought of it," Mahre said.
The letters from prep schools began to arrive.
She was courted throughout this season and a few weeks ago made a decision. She, along with her older sister, Cosette, who plays basketball for GAC, were both given scholarships to attend St. Paul's School in New Hampshire. She turned down four other offers to play for head coach Heather Ferrell, who last season was 22-2-1.
"She's blessed to have just fantastic parents that are totally supportive of whatever it takes for her dream to come true," Hemms said.
The girls will leave together in the fall. It'll be an empty nest for Mark and Jessica Mahre. But the sisters will have each other and Madison was never really worried about being on her own in any case.
"I'm more mature for my age -- I have no idea why, I just kind of am," Mahre said. "So I'm OK leaving my family. I love my family, but my mom is gone two weeks of the month because she has to go to China for her work. So I'll come home, make myself some dinner and do my homework. Then my parents will come home later."
Playing hockey is just part of the appeal for Mahre. She wants to get into an Ivy League school so the stringent academic requirements are good for her.
"I'm kind of a nerd," Mahre said with a laugh.
She works hard to maintain a GPA over 4.0 at GAC, which offers a tough curriculum itself.
"I try really hard because it's not just hockey that's going to get me places," Mahre said. "I love hockey, I want to do it my whole life, but it's not going to be my job."
Still not convinced
Mahre is planning to try out for the U14 national team. District tryouts are next month. The team will be picked this summer.
"I have no idea what they will be like but I'm preparing for the worst," she said. "Just because I don't know how good I am, I'm trying to work as hard as I can so I'm not that Southern girl that just can't play hockey."
There's little chance of that.
Her invitation to the camp this week in Kelowna, British Columbia, should illustrate that. She passed up a chance to go to nationals with her Pittsburgh team in order to play with the best girls in North America.
"I think I'm really good, but I've never really played against the top girls for my age," she said. "Fingers crossed, I'm really good."